Theorizing Twilight: Critical Essays on What’s at Stake in a Post-Vampire World, edited by Maggie Parke and Natalie Wilson (McFarland, 2011), is the latest addition to the growing body of work analyzing Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight franchise from a broad range of literary, cultural, psychological, sociological, and political perspectives. To put my own cards on the table up-front, I have read the first three books of the series, as well as skimming Breaking Dawn (once the vampire pregnancy thing entered the picture, I lost patience). In the beginning, I wanted to like these books. At least a little. I’m not totally opposed to the paranormal romance genre, however cliche it can so often be — think Laurel K. Hamilton for reference; more about that series in a minute — and I, like many readers, found the front-and-center treatment of Bella’s sexual desire a initially compelling alternative to the preponderance of sexually passive/dormant female characters in YA fiction. But stepping back and looking at the series as a whole, many disturbing patterns appear in terms of gender roles, sexuality, romance, family relationships, and more. If you’re interested in my previous reflections, see here, here, here, and here. Below I’m going to talk specifically about the newer questions and concerns that came up for me as I was reading Theorizing.
As with any anthology (me: broken record) there are highlights and lowlights depending on your own personal interest in the Twilight phenomenon. I found myself skimming over the several essays that used psychoanalytic and literary critical frameworks, for example, in favor of pieces that chose to consider the interaction of fans with the books and films, or the political messages embedded in the book concerning gender and sexuality. Pieces that hit a particularly high note in my own estimation were Tanya Erzen’s “The Vampire Capital of the World,” Ananya Mukherjea’s “Team Bella,” Ashley Benning’s “How Old Are You?” and Hila Shachar’s “A Post-Feminist Romance.” Erzen travels to the real-world town of Forks, Washington, to explore the way in which Twilight tourism has affected the town’s economy, identity, and created internal social tension as the residents react in differing ways to the influx of fans. Mukherjea considers “the interpretive work that Twilight fans do with the text,” with particular attention to those fans whom we might think would feel alienated from the texts: self-identified feminists, queer, and non-white readers. Benning’s “How Old Are You?” de-naturalizes the assumptions the series makes regarding age (for example, that ageing and death are something to be feared and combated). She also considers the cultural and political import of classifying the books as “children’s literature” for adolescents, despite the fact the series has a large following among those over twenty-one. And Schachar suggests that Twilight could be fruitfully considered as part of the backlash against feminist interrogations of feminist analysis of gender relationships, and political challenges to male dominance.
I particularly appreciated, throughout this book, the recognition and engagement with the agency of Twilight‘s fans. For the most part, the authors in Theorizing recognize that readers are not passive receptacles for the conscious and unconscious messages of the books, but rather actively engaged in the project of interpreting, analyzing, and appropriating the narratives for their own ends. Those ends are, of course, constrained and influenced, in part, by the culture through which we all move. Our affinities and desires are hardly established in a vacuum. But much of the coverage of Twilight among its detractors has, troublingly, figured its fans as frivolous, foolish, and dangerously susceptible to the troubling messages about gender, sexuality, race, mortality, religion, and more which we see embedded in narrative. Given that the fan base is overwhelmingly made up of women and girls, I worry about how the construction of Twilight‘s fans feeds into our “common sense” assumption that anything coded feminine is inherently inferior. Add to this our similar assumption that anything coded as juvenile/childish is inherently inferior and it’s all too easy to dismiss Twilight fans in some truly unfortunate ways (I’ve been guilty of this myself in the past, and likely will again). I was glad to see relatively little of that in the pages of Theorizing.
The one aspect of Twilight enthusiasm that I was disappointed to see completely missing from Theorizing‘s pages was any serious treatment of the depictions of violent sex that looked deeper than the obvious problem of consent. As my friend Minerva pointed out, when we were talking about this recently, the Twilight saga reads like a “four book ‘dub-con’ fan fic,” since the series is saturated with sexual narratives which depend on dubious consent, if not out-right non-consensual sex and relationships. As a number of Theorizing‘s authors point out, despite the fact that Bella is scripted as a heroine who, through her own strength of will, creates the life she desires, what the language and symbolism of the series makes clear is that Bella’s “choices” are supernaturally pre-determined. She never could have “chosen” any other path, and therefore the choices she makes are not true choices at all, or a Vampire-esque version of Calvinist predestination.
The problem I see in a lot of critical analysis of this dubious consent problem is that it slips into equating the consent issues with the depiction of sexual intimacy as violent, particularly in the context of Bella and Edward’s infamous wedding-night initiation into an active sexual relationship, which leaves the bed destroyed and Bella’s body bruised. Bella insists the rough sex was desired; Edward is appalled by his behavior and backs away from the implications of his aggression. Such a scene would be a perfect opportunity to introduce readers of the series to enthusiastic negotiation and consent in the context of rough sex and BDSM scenarios. Instead, criticism of the scene usually takes an appalled stance on sex that would leave bruises and broken furniture. I can’t help worrying that girls and women who find fantasizing about such scenarios a turn-on will feel shamed for their “wrong” desires, when instead critics could offer them ways of incorporating those fantasizes into non-abusive, consensual sexual intimacy.
It could be fruitful, for example, to contrast Meyer’s depiction of violent sex with other supernatural romance authors who explicitly incorporate notions of negotiation and consent into their narratives. Laurel K. Hamilton, for example, whose Anita Blake series contains many similar elements to Meyer’s Twilight — including a vamp-human-were love triangle — yet offers much more radical solutions to the heroine’s potentially dangerous desires. This isn’t to say Hamilton’s series offers to completely positive alternative to Twilight — there’s a lot one could critique in terms of its depictions of gender, sexuality, relationships, etc., and even simple construction of a plot. But in contrast to Twilight the Anita Blake series does suggest that non-normative sexual desires and relationship constellations can be healthy and nourishing.
I would also have been interested in more sustained analysis of Bella’s monstrous vampire pregnancy, and how one might place it within the gothic/horror tradition, rather than the romance genre (which most critics draw on most heavily in analyzing the narrative elements of the franchise). I’m intrigued by the fact that the novels figure marriage and motherhood as the source of Bella’s ultimate fulfillment and the key to her immortality (*coughcough*Mormon theology*coughcough*), yet present pregnancy and parenthood as a monstrous, body-destroying enterprise. Put together with the horror of ageing and mortality in the series, I think Bella’s experience of pregnancy could be a potentially fruitful gateway into an examination of our culture’s fears of the process of child-bearing, and our fears of women’s reproductive capacity — particularly the changes it wreaks upon women’s bodies.
Theorizing Twilight will be a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the Twilight phenomenon, in fan culture, and in current iterations of gothic, horror, romance literature.